University of Alaska Students Learn More Than How to Build

Alaskans 5-13-16 016

What started as a chance to provide hands-on experience and help take college students from Anchorage, AK, somewhere new and different has become something much more. Bob Maxwell is the faculty adviser for the University of Alaska’s Architecture and Engineering Club. Twelve years ago, he decided to start a tradition of service trips for the club, choosing Charleston, SC, as their first destination. A year later, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and he knew he needed to take the next trip to New Orleans to help in the rebuilding.

“The mission is to get kids in Architecture & Engineering program hands-on experience,” he said, “get them on the job site, get them to understand what safety is, what site prep is, all the aspects of the construction industry.”

Many of the students who make the trip come to learn, or out of a sense of service to their communities, but some are a little more interested in New Orleans’ convivial reputation.

“I have had many confessions from students who came because they wanted Bourbon Street,” he said. “They want to party. They tell me after the fact. They say, ‘I got so much value out of this trip, and I really didn’t come to the trip to build homes. I came on the trip because I wanted to party. I wanted to drink beer. I wanted to run around with college kids and have a blast.’ About the third or fourth day, the first time they they get to talk to a homeowner and see where this work is going and that somebody physical is actually benefiting from our work, that’s a turning point for all of these kids. I wasn’t ready for that myself.”

Whether they learned about the impact of their work during their trip or they were already inclined to service, many of them continue to support good causes long after the trip is over.

“They get a lot of value out of this,” he said. “This is my 12th time we’ve done this trip, and I’m still in contact with a bunch of the students. They’ve gone on to become professionals, and they go find their passion. Their passion may not be Habitat. It may be some other service work. I’m constantly getting hit up for walk-a-thons and ride-a-thons and that kind of stuff because these kids continue to do service work and raise money for nonprofits, which is really cool.”

During their trips to New Orleans, they make time to see the city and enjoy the night life, visiting the French Quarter, going to parks and zoos, and taking time to enjoy the food. They also take trips to nearby beaches, taking advantage of the city’s proximity to the Gulf Coast, but their focus is on the local culture and the differences between here and Alaska.

“As much immersion into the culture as we can possibly do is what we’re looking for–and still put in eight hours a day on the job sites,” he said. “This is where the value of the trip is, but also getting to experience another part of the country. We had a girl four years ago who had never been out of Anchorage, and the rain came down and it was warm. She had never in her life experienced warm rain, because we have really cold rain. She’s out dancing in the streets, she’s spinning, because this is the most beautiful thing. It’s like taking a shower, it’s so warm. She just lit up. She never experienced that before. That’s the kind of stuff that makes being this far south is so much different.”